Let’s face it: Robots are taking our jobs.
The International Federation of Robotics carries out an annual survey of the state on the robot business, and its most recent edition reports a massive 43 per cent increase in the number of multipurpose robots sold in the United States in 2011.
In Canada, the number of robots in the workforce jumped 72 per cent in the same year.
Those aren't the growth rates of a mature, stable industry. Those are internet-subscriptions-in-the-1990s, smartphone-purchases-in-the-2000s type of growth rates. The robot revolution is happening now.
And economists are only now beginning to wake up to the potential impact of our plastic pals who are fun to be with.
While the recently revived debate about income inequality initially focused on issues such as ever-lower taxes on the rich and the education gap, experts are increasingly looking at robotics as one of the fundamental causes of what appears to be a growing income gap across the developed world.
The theory behind it is largely indisputable: Robots, unlike human workers, don’t take a salary, so when human workers are replaced by robots, the money that would have flowed into the economy in the form of wages instead flows to the company that owns the robots — that is, to executives and capital owners.
So the more robots, the more capital owners and executives earn, and the less everyone else earns.
The issue recently reached the attention of the near-celebrity economist Paul Krugman, who appears to be growing seriously worried about the impact of robot workers.
The trend “makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets.”
But Krugman did point out that robotic workforces have one upshot — they make it reasonable to return manufacturing to the wealthy developed countries from which it has fled.
“Robots mean that labor costs don’t matter much, so you might as well locate in advanced countries with large markets and good infrastructure,” he wrote.
But unfortunately, most of the new jobs in these returning factories … would go to robots.
Here are the 15 countries that have the most “robot density” — the highest ratio of robot workers to human workers. Not surprisingly, the countries known as manufacturing powerhouses — Germany and Japan, for example — dominate the list.